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[Ed. Note: This article is reprinted with permission from the December issue of SeaPower. a Navy League publication.]

“If we are going UJ send submarine sailors UJ sea, I want them UJ be able to handle the UJughest guy on the block, the toughest adversary they might have to face.”

Although the world now seems a much safer place, thanks J-\ the collapse of the Soviet empire and the arms-reduction initiatives agreed to by U.S. President George Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, few Americans would disagree with that contention by Vice Admiral Roger Bacon, the Navy’s Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Undersea Warfare. But their commitment might be somewhat diluted when they learn that the submarines he believes will give the U.S. Navy the capability it needs for undersea supremacy– for years to come — would be the most expensive ones ever built. At a time when many members of Congress, and much of the media, favor cutting the budget for national defense, support for embarking on a major new shipbuilding program, no matter how badly the ships are needed, begins to wane. As a consequence, the Navy’s SEA WOLF-class (SSN-21) nuclear-powered attack submarine program is in danger of being curtailed or even eliminated.

The decreased support for that program as well as the growing enthusiasm to cut the defense budget were manifested on Capitol Hill during debate earlier this year over the Pentagon’s fiscal year 1992 funding plan by a motion to kill the SEA WOLF program and substitute funds for construction of two more LOS ANGELES-class (SSN-688) nuclear-powered attack submarines. Unquestionably, the 688’s are superb ships. They may, in fact, be the best in the world- today. But their design is more than 25 years old, and they already have been upgraded and improved so often that there is now no room for further growth.

Soon, therefore, given the pace of development of Soviet conventional as well as nuclear submarines, the LA-cJass ships may find themselves second best under the seas. But that fact — and the fact that the cost of a new LOS ANGELES-class submarine today (two years after the last ship of the class was authorized) would be at least 85 percent of the vastly more capable SEA WOLF — has not deterred those who want to slash the defense budget even more drastically than it already has been cut over the last several years.

The Voice of Authority

Bacon believes he is on solid ground, though, in supporting a 12-ship-minimum SEA WOLF program. His 30 years as a submariner attest to his expertise. He has served in both attack and ballistic missile submarines and has commanded both types. He also has commanded all U.S. and allied submarines in the Mediterranean and, while serving as Commander, Submarine Force, Atlantic, all submarines under the operational control of NATO’s supreme allied commander, Atlantic. He has been responsible in recent years, Navy officials say, for the conduct of more, and more diverse, submarine operations, involving the submarines of more nations, than any other submariner in uniform today. He is not only academically familiar with the capabilities of U.S., allied, and Soviet submarines, he also logged underway time, as COMSUBLANT, aboard submarines of the French, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish navies. In short, he speaks with considerable authority.

Like other senior U.S. naval and military leaders, Bacon frequently points out that America must ensure that its naval forces can cope with the capabilities of potential adversaries, and not base its strategy on the alleged intentions of those potential adversaries (another way of saying the Soviet Union). Today, for Bacon as for other U.S. defense leaders, the watchword is and must be uncertainty. “The Soviets now have a force of 273 submarines. They apparently are in the process of reducing some of their older classes. But last year they built 10 submarines, including one for export. The Navy expects them to build at least six this year — five already have been launched. In contrast, the U.S. Navy will commission only three submarines in 1991 and four in 1992; two of those seven are SSBNs (ballistic missile submarines). And the USN’s total attack submarine force today numbers only 85 ships.

“We know,” said Bacon, discussing the U.S. and Soviet submarine building rates and the rationale behind the SEAWOLF program, “that as of now they (the Soviets) are poised to build quite a number more over the next five years, and that those they build will be modern, quiet submarines. The parity between our LOS ANGELES class and their ships is getting very close. Our margin of tactical superiority is there because of our people and our technology. Our people simply drive submarines better than anyone out there. But the technology and stealth which the Soviets have put into their ships are substantial, and we need SEA WOLF to expand that margin to ensure we maintain our undersea warfare superiority.

“People ask: ‘But what are we going to use all our submarines for?’ Again, there is that uncertainty. We have seen no changes in the operation of their strategic submarine force. They are at sea. Even under the proposals Gorbachev made in response to President Bush’s nuclear-weapon-reduction initiative, we anticipate they will maintain a third of their strategic ballistic missiles at sea. And they tested those missiles during the August attempted coup, with two firings from the Pacific across the North Pole to their testing grounds. That force is out there. I s:mply don’t believe that the American public would accept not being able to deter that force with some force in this country. And the ship that was designed to do that is SEA WOLF.”

A Handful of Havoc

Bacon also points out that fast, modem, quiet, dieselpropelled submarines are now to be found in ever-increasing numbers throughout the world. By the end of 1991, he estimates, there will be 39 countries (in addition to the United States and the Soviet Union) operating more than 400 submarines of various types, and that number is certain to increase as more Third World nations, anxious to build the offensive and defensive capabilities of their navies, acquire them.

Surprisingly, Iran, which now has no submarines, has trained some of its sailors to become submariners. Many defense analysts have speculated about how much leverage that oil-rich aspirant to world power could exert in the Middle East if it could create a small but formidable submarine force with easy access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean – and to all the shipping lanes used by tankers carrying oil both east and west. Several also have asked how much havoc could have been wreaked by just a handful of Iraqi submarines in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean during the buildup of U.S./coalition forces in the Middle East before Desert Storm. An estimated 90 percent of the equipment used during the war was moved by sea, and at the height of the buildup a heavily-laden merchant ship could be found every 50 miles from the U.S. East Coast to ports in Saudi Arabia.

But even if a consensus existed that there indeed should be some kind of successor to the LOS ANGELES-class SSNs, why SEA WOLF? Why go forward, some members of Congress have asked, with a class of ships the first of which will cost at least $2 billion, and whose successors will be almost as expensive? Why not make the best possible use of the older ships still available until a submarine less costly than the SEA WOLF can be designed and built? The Navy already has told Congress that it has initiated a study project to determine the feasibility of building a new class of nuclear attack submarines, so why not wait until the study in completed? The new submarine would be smaller, and lower in cost, than SEA WOLF, but also markedly less capable. It also is intended to complement the SEA WOLF, the Navy points out, not replace it. The first ship of the new class, moreover, could not be operational for another 13 years.

What many people do not realize, says Bacon, is that the SEAWOLF represents the same kind of quantum leap forward in capability that was so dramatically demonstrated during Desert Storm, by the F-117 stealth fighter and the Tomahawk cruise missile. fEd. Note: Emphasis added.] Interestingly, the high development costs of both of those programs almost caused their cancellation. But they are now symbols of the high-tech weaponry that American industry can build, and that Americans expect to be built for the U.S. armed forces.

The SEA WOLF is of the same genre. It is designed to be 30 times quieter than the initial LOS ANGELES-class SSNs, says Bacon, and 10 times quieter than the improved versions of that submarine (the last 17 ships in the class). It will have a much greater operating volume and depth capability, 40 percent more weapons and combat capability, and the highest search rate of any submarine in the world.

The SEA WOLFs stealth and firepower, moreover, are complemented by a revolutionary new combat system, the BSY 2, which will surpass by a wide margin, Bacon says, the capability of any other submarine combat system extant. The BSY-2 development effort, he says, has made steady progress. All development-risk hardware elements have successfully completed testing, and hardware and software integration is underway. In short, Bacon says, the BSY-2 defines the next generation for submarine combat systems.

A Spectrum of Capabilities

And, asserts Bacon, the SEA WOLF will have the capabilities to conduct a broad spectrum of missions well into the next century, including shallow-water operational support for special operations forces. For years, critics of the SEA WOLF program have contended that the Navy’s SSNs could not operate safely and effectively in shallow water. Smaller and ostensibly more maneuverable diesel boats are needed, the critics said, to support such operations — which, most defense analysts agree, are the most likely conflict scenario of the future. In that context, Bacon cites the successes achieved in joint special forces operations in the Caribbean involving Army, Navy, and Marine Corps personnel, transported into position just 20 miles offshore from the area of operations and launched from two specially configured former Polaris SSBNs. The SEA WOLF, he claims, could carry out the same mission — and do it better.

With its increased load of highly accurate land-attack missiles, Bacon continues, the SEA WOLF also can provide a conventional-deterrence capability against Third World nations. The outstanding success of the Tomahawk missile during Desert Storm has demonstrated the ability of submarines to influence events on land, he points out.

“SEA WOLF costs have risen because we are buying fewer units per year,” says Bacon, addressing the SEA WOLFs alleged “cost problem: “It’s as simple as that. Any businessman will tell you that, if you go from buying three units of a very specialized product per year to one, the cost per unit will rise. ”

In short, its advocates claim, the SEA WOLF — even with its seemingly high price tag and certain construction problems that have developed (including brittle welds in the SSN-21 hull that must be replaced at the cost of a year in time and millions of dollars)– will provide the clear technological edge that the U.S. Submarine Force of the future will need to maintain its undersea superiority. In addition, because it will require fewer overhauls, the SEA WOLF will be able to spend more days at sea during its 30-year life than the 688s can. The result will be a 25 percent reduction in operating and support costs.

Because maintaining freedom of the seas is still the comerstone of the U.S. defense policy, Bacon summarized, it makes sense to build the ships best able to attain that objective at the least risk to American lives.

Then There Were Two

What would happen if the defense budgetcutters prevail, the SEA WOLF building program is canceled, and a decision is made to wait until — sometime after the tum of the century – the design of the new SSN (Centurion is the study project name; the submarine’s name will be determined later) is completed and approved and funds for its construction are budgeted? Will there be any shipyards left to build it?

That does not seem likely. Less than a quarter of a century ago there were six U.S. shipyards capable of building nuclearpowered submarines; the General Dynamics yards in Groton, Conn. (Electric Boat) and Quincy, Mass., the naval shipyards in Portsmouth, NH, and Mare Island, Calif., Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, VA, and Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss. {Ed. Note: New York Shipbuilding yard in Camden, Nl also produced several SSNs.] Now there are only two: Electric Boat and Newport News. Ingalls, the last of the other four yards to drop out of the submarine-building business, completed its last submarine in 1974. Moreover, Newport News is scheduled to deliver its last 688 in late 1995, does not yet have a contract to build a SEA WOLF-class ship, and has not built any of the 18-ship OHIO-class ballistic missile submarines. Electric Boat is scheduled to deliver its last LOS ANGELESclass ship in 1995, the SEA WOLF (name ship of the class) in 1996, and the Navy’s last SSBN in 1997. That will leave only SSN-22 (funded in FY 1991) and SSN-23 (funded in FY 1992) on the Navy’s orderbook.

But with only two submarines to be built, what happens to the thousands of skilled artisans who have been building the U.S. Navy’s submarines for the last four decades? And what happens to the second- and third-echelon suppliers, and subcontractors that for years have been providing the systems and subsystems and other building components to the primary contractors? Their numbers have been declining at an alarming rate for several years; according to one estimate, the number of U.S. defense suppliers dropped from 138,000 to 40,000 between 1982 and 1987. And in 1990, of 244 firms responding to a Defense Systems Management College survey, 21 percent said they either were cutting back on their defense business or getting out of the business entirely.

Bacon and other SEA WOLF supporters warn that, because the world remains unstable and the undersea warfare capabilities of other nations are still growing, the United States cannot afford to permit its ship construction capability to lie dormant for years – and, then, in all probability, vanish.

Perhaps the most important factor in the current cost/capability equation, though, is simply this: If the United States is to protect its interests throughout the world — and safeguard the lives of the young Americans who may be called upon to defend those interests — it has a moral responsibility to provide the most effective and reliable weapons and ship and aircraft platforms needed for success in combal The SEA WOLF clearly is one of those platforms and, in the opinion of Bacon and other supporters of the SSN-21 program, the most cost-effective of the undersea platform options now available. Its cost may be high in dollars, but those dollars would be buying the most desirable peace dividend of all — peace itself .

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